The Pentagon insisted Monday that the United States is not endorsing an impending Turkish incursion into northern Syria, despite the withdrawal of U.S. forces from the area.
“The Department of Defense made clear to Turkey – as did the president – that we do not endorse a Turkish operation in northern Syria. The U.S. Armed Forces will not support, or be involved in any such operation,” chief Pentagon spokesman Jonathan Hoffman said in a statement.
“In conversations between the department and the Turkish military we have consistently stressed that coordination and cooperation were the best path toward security in the area,” Hoffman added.
Defense Secretary Mark Esper and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Mark Milley also “reiterated to their respective Turkish counterparts that unilateral action creates risks for Turkey,” according to the statement.
Pentagon spokeswoman Lt. Col. Carla Gleason later said Turkey has been removed from the Air Tasking Order, which is what the U.S. military uses to organize and instruct air forces. As part of that, the United States is no longer sharing intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance of the region with Turkey, she said.
Following a phone call between President Trump and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, the White House announced late Sunday that NATO ally Turkey would proceed with a long-planned operation in northern Syria and said U.S. forces “will no longer be in the immediate area.”
The retreat of U.S. forces, which have been acting as a buffer between Ankara and the Kurds, was widely seen as Trump giving his blessing for the Turkish operation to move forward.
Turkey has long threatened to attack Kurdish forces in northern Syria. Ankara considers them terrorists connected with a Turkish Kurdish insurgency, but the United States considers them the most effective local force fighting ISIS in Syria.
On Monday, Trump reinforced his decision, tweeting that he “was elected on getting out of these ridiculous endless wars.”
Trump’s decision to pull back from northern Syria was criticized across the political spectrum, including from several Republicans who are typically staunch allies. Critics say a U.S. retreat will abandon the Kurds to be slaughtered by Turkey and lead to chaos that will allow ISIS to regroup.
Appearing to respond to the criticism, Trump issued a second series of tweets later Monday threatening to “obliterate” Ankara’s economy if it does anything that, in his “great and unmatched wisdom,” he “consider[s] to be off limits.”
The tweets do not mention protection of the Kurds, but rather the need for Turkey and others to “watch over the captured ISIS fighters and families.”
In its statement, the Pentagon also stressed that Turkey will be responsible for the thousands of ISIS fighters being detained in northern Syria.
The Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), which are led by the Kurds, are detaining an estimated 10,000 ISIS fighters; about 2,000 are estimated to be from countries other than Syria or Iraq.
“As the president has stated, Turkey would be responsible, along with European nations and others, for thousands of ISIS fighters who had been captured and defeated in the campaign lead by the United States,” Hoffman said.
Hoffman also said the Pentagon would continue to impress upon Turkey that an offensive would be destabilizing.
“We will work with our other NATO allies and coalition partners to reiterate to Turkey the possible destabilizing consequences of potential actions to Turkey, the region, and beyond,” he said.
Updated at 3:10 p.m.